How to Make Enemies: Unmask New York's Biggest Commuting Secrets

By posting signs about where to board for the easiest transfers, EPP hopes to make riding a little easier. But the MTA is not amused.

The New York City subway system is in many ways a marvel, a model of what can be done with public transportation. It operates 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, moving 5.3 million people on an average weekday through 468 stations. There is no other system in the United States that comes anywhere close to matching its volume or scope.

It is also stubbornly antique. A few lines have countdown clocks letting you know when the next train is coming, and a few stations have electronic information displays. Wifi is available on a handful of platforms. But for the most part, learning how to use the system efficiently requires old-school skills and hard-won knowledge.

You can tell whether a train is approaching by the way the wind whooshes in the tunnel, or sometimes by listening for a telltale chunk sound on the tracks. You learn how to read the body language of your fellow commuters. And you develop a mental map of the stations that allows you to "prewalk" to places on the platform that will ease the transfer to another line or allow you to leave the station at the best exit for your destination.

Until now, the transfer information has been either locked inside the minds of New Yorkers, or available to smartphone users aware of an app called Exit Strategy. But this week, some handsome and official-looking signs began appearing on strategic spots on the L train platform, telling riders to "board here for best transfer to…"

They use typography similar to the MTA, but they're not MTA-approved. The signs are the work of a group calling itself the Efficient Passenger Project, and they say they want to expand their signs to cover every line in the city.

"The idea came to us after we realized that there is a way we can use the knowledge and tools available to us to improve public spaces," one of the anonymous organizers says in an email. "We saw an opportunity to facilitate a better experience for subway riders -- both local and visiting -- by making something and putting it out for people to interact with."

The EPP looked for approval from the MTA for the project, and suggested working together. But they say they were "stonewalled" by the agency, which has said it will be removing the signs as fast as they go up.

"These signs have the potential to cause crowding conditions in certain platform areas and will create uneven loading in that some train cars will be overcrowded while others will be underutilized," MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz told WNYC’s Transportation Nation. He added that "regular customers already know which car they want to get into."

But the EPP folks – who have tested all the transfers and "guarantee" the signs' accuracy – say that they don't think posting this information poses safety issues. "We think this argument doesn't give enough credit to riders," they say. "This kind of information just empowers them to make better decisions."

Opinions were split among commenters on the WNYC story. Some thought it seemed like a great idea, while others derided the signs as a crutch for ignorant out-of-towners.

"It feels good when you have insider knowledge," wrote one. "You spend a lot of time in the city using the subway, have your route, you learn these things and it feels good. If every tourist and newbie can now instantly have the same knowledge, you lose that perk you gained from the time you've invested living in the city and using the public transportation.”

Another had no patience for that view: "New Yorkers take too much schadenfreudin' pride in how alienating and confusing the subways are."

The debate echoes a small controversy that erupted when Slate columnist Matt Yglesias last year revealed his strategy for avoiding the notorious boarding scrum in Penn Station's Amtrak main waiting area (spoiler alert: you can wait one level down and watch a monitor for the track announcement).

"I've gotten much more positive feedback than negative," writes Yglesias in an email about the reception to his revelation. "But yes, some people -- including some professional journalists -- have complained that I gave away the secret. I think beating the system is less important than changing the system by letting people know what's really going on."

That's the EPP’s position as well, and they say they're sticking to it – and plan to keep rolling out the signs to more and more stations (though they say it's not currently scalable to every station). They also haven’t given up on the idea of winning over the transit agency.

"We hope to partner with the MTA to help bring some of the bigger ideas to the trains, or at least experiment a bit!" They added, “We think ‘insider’ information is usually more valuable when it's liberated."

All photos via the Efficient Passenger Project.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.